By David Joel Miller, MS, Licensed Therapist & Licensed Counselor.
Reactive Attainment is related to Stress and Trauma but how?
We know children can be affected by reactive attachments but now we are wondering if it might underlie some problems of adults. We know what happens to you growing up can shape and affect you for the rest of your life, how much might reactive attachment disorder be contributing to adult mental health issues?
Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) used to be a problem relegated to a special section on childhood issues; it has been moved to the Stress and Trauma section of the new DSM-5. Two things to consider – the way in which this childhood problem may be affecting adults and how might this be another case of how much is it affecting adults rather than a simple yes or no question.
Reactive Attachment is a serious problem for very young children as any Child Protective services worker will tell you. We have a fairly good idea of what causes it and some methods of treating it but the long-term consequences seem to get lost when the child reaches the school years and beyond.
Working with adults I see some of these characteristics from time to time. I do not want to minimize the problem in children nor do I think every adult problem should get blamed on childhood experiences. Just the same there are these tendencies we see in adults and I can’t help wondering how many of those adult problems had their roots in childhood experiences.
First the 7 criteria for Reactive Attachment Disorder (very roughly paraphrased from the DSM-5) and along the way some thoughts on how other adult issues may be like this one and may be different from RAD. For the full, precise set of characteristics and diagnostic criteria see the DSM-5.
1. The child is always or almost always is inhibited and withdrawn. They do not go to adults for comfort and when the adult tries they do not appear to be comforted.
2. Low or no social interaction with others, and does not look happy or like they are enjoying themselves. Lots of sadness, irritability, and fear for no good reason.
3. The child has been neglected and did not get their needs met by adults in their life. Parents could not or did not meet the child’s needs or the child moved from caregiver to caregiver so much no pattern of care got off the ground. Group settings with too few adults per child can also cause this.
4. We think the lack of care caused the problem. (This can be the tricky one as we may not know what this person’s care was like way back when.)
5. This is not Autism or something like autism (The DSM lists ways to tell these apart.)
6. This started before age 5.
7. The child is developmentally at least 9 months old.
Now if you got all that you should have a picture of what this neglected (maybe also abused) child might look like. This kid could be a very difficult child to raise. The just sit there and look at you.
Most kids we expect to be cute. Give them a toy to play with and they smile. Hug them and they hug you back. Not the child with RAD. This kid cries for no reason and does not stop when you hold them. They never smile and they are always irritable. They jump at the slightest sound and then refuse your touch when you try to comfort them. Getting the picture?
Now the criteria wants us to see and know all this before 5 years and know that the neglect (or abuse) caused this.
What would this child look like in ten or twenty years as they grow up and for some reason first appear in the mental health system?
What might these symptoms look like if it was not an all or nothing situation? Say the parents worked all the time and the child had to fend for themselves. They moved around a lot and had no friends or close family members?
As this person ages, they might live in various group homes. The caregiver would keep changing. They would develop trust issues. They might believe that you can’t rely on others because they will leave you.
In the teen years, this child might, still angry, irritable, anxious, act out, and get in trouble. These would be the children that blow foster home placements or move from group home to group home. Even if they lived with some family member, grandma or aunt, they would never really get close to that person and eventually, they would “hook up with” a member of the opposite sex and have some more little ones.
Not able to feel cared for they might not be able to care for their own children and they might abuse or neglect the next generation.
While Reactive attachment is an extreme case I think by now you might see how low caregiver contact, abuse, neglect, or frequent changes in living situations could produce some of these characteristics to a greater or lesser degree as the child grows to adulthood.
Not knowing or feeling loved is at the core of these problems.
We may well have been underestimating the effects of lifespan issues in our evaluation of adult mental and emotional issues.
People can and do recover from almost all forms of mental and emotional disorders, but recovery from Reactive Attachment Disorder is a difficult process.
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